Egypt is set to expand the buffer zone between the town of Rafah and the Gaza Strip from 500 metres to 1km, as counterinsurgency efforts by the authorities continue.
The buffer zone’s expansion in the border area between Sinai and the Gaza Strip represents the “second phase” of a new national security plan, state-run news agency MENA reported.
The government first announced its decision to build the buffer zone after two deadly attacks on security forces on 24 October, which resulted in the deaths of 30 army personnel.
President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi said the day after the attacks that “foreign elements” had been involved, but he did not elaborate further.
The purpose of the buffer zone is to destroy all underground smuggling tunnels connecting Egypt to the Gaza Strip.
As part of the new security measures that followed the October attacks on the armed forces, Egypt also announced the indefinite closure of the official Rafah border crossing. The Rafah border has been the main crossing point in and out of the Gaza Strip since the enclave was subjected to an Israeli land, air, and sea blockade in 2007, following Hamas’ takeover.
The Information and Decision Support Centre, an Egyptian government think tank said on 3 November that 802 homes were to be evacuated as part of the armed forces’ project to establish a secure zone along the border. This came down to the relocation of 1,156 families in order to create the buffer zone.
The decision to expand the buffer zone comes after the armed forces discovered tunnels in Rafah that were over 800 metres long, bypassing the existing 500 metre buffer zone, MENA reported.
The tunnels connecting Egypt to the Gaza Strip are used for the entry of goods to the Strip, including food, medicine, fuel, and building materials, and for the movement of individuals. Weapon smuggling also takes place.
The period following the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi in July 2013 witnessed an intensification of security crackdowns on all smuggling activity. Over the past 18 months, there have been frequent media reports in Egypt linking the insurgency in Sinai to militant groups active in the Gaza Strip.
Osama Hamdan, head of Hamas’ international relations office, said the “buffer zone supports the Israeli blockade of Gaza”, in a television interview last month.